In watching Game of Thrones and falling in love with the worldbuilding, the characters, and the stories, there’s one thing that’s inescapable: the misogyny. This is not just a violent, brutal television series, but specifically one that features violence against women. In almost every episode, there’s a rape or threatened rape, a violent murder of a woman, or another exertion of male power over women; there’s Prince Joffrey and his brutal beating of a sex worker, the threats to Tyrion’s lover Shay, Brienne’s near-rape when she’s escorting Jamie Lannister to King’s Landing, the implied wedding night rape of Daenerys, and so much more. We won’t even get into the Red Wedding.
This is a show about male violence against women.
George R. R. Martin’s books aren’t much better.
Critics of the misogyny embedded in the series, and the world it’s build on, are often told that misogyny is ‘realistic, for the time.’ This defense is a bit puzzling, as this response makes it sound like Game of Thrones is historical fiction, rather than what it actually is, which is fantasy. The series is indeed set in a version of Medieval Europe, complete with feudalism, warring kingdoms, and some of the technologies that would have been available in that era, but to talk about it like it’s a serious and accurate depiction of this era is ludicrous.
Often, fantasy authors choose this setting as a basis for their worlds, because it provides rich opportunities for exploration. This was a period of intense superstition, storytelling, and wonder. It was the tipping point right before radical social changes that forever altered the way the West lives and functions. If you want stories about horse-mounted battles and brave knights errant and kingdoms struggling to survive, it’s a fantastic setting to choose, whether you’re writing The Sword in the Stone or epic fantasy doorstoppers.
But Game of Thrones isn’t historical fiction. It’s not a series about what life might have been like in the Medieval era. It’s a series about what life in Westeros is like, which is why there are things like dragons and zombies. Game of Thrones features witches, wizards, and other mystical figures with immense, supernatural power. The world of the series is inherently fantastical, which is part of its draw, because it pulls the reader, or viewer, into a totally different and wondrous place, even if it’s anchored in some familiarity; thus, we see people riding horses and equipping castles, trading from precious gems and silks and sailing in traditionally-rigged ships. But we also see people rising and walking again after they’re dead, and monstrous zombie horses, and dragons with jewel-like scales.
At its heart, Game of Thrones is about fantasy: something that is not real. Like so many other books in this specific subset of the fantasy genre, that with a world based extremely loosely on historic England, it is not truthful to history, or even to geography, let alone science and fact. That’s not what the series is about, nor is it what readers want to engage with. We read books like The Mists of Avalon, to pick a random example that’s pretty much dead opposite to Martin’s series, to imagine a wondrous world, or to envision an alternate history infused with magic, not because we think they’re accurate depictions of what life was like in a specific period of history, even if the people in them aren’t real.
What’s curious, and deeply troubling, about Game of Thrones and their ilk is that while they can change so many things about history to create a rich, fascinating, densely-imagined world, apparently fantasy does not extend to imagining gender equality. Throughout the history of fantasy as a genre, it’s been used to advance stories of horrific violence against women, misogyny, and rape culture. And the excuse, always, is that it’s ‘necessary for the era in which it was set.’
But why? Game of Thrones isn’t set in a real place or time. It isn’t bounded by what actually happened or what life was really like for women. The show could just as easy be about a matriarchy, about a misandrist society (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek), which would be a fascinating confrontation and flip of gender norms if done well. It could also be a world of equality, with men and women fighting side by side, dying side by side, enduring the horrors of their world side by side, all on the same footing.
Instead it’s a world where young women are used as political pawns, where the rare female knight fears rape, not just death (and where the very real sexual assaults of male warriors are mysteriously erased from the narrative, even though they, too, would be ‘accurate for the time’). While some women of power are depicted textually in Game of Thrones, they are shown as unusual for the society they live in — and they have to fight dragon’s tooth and nail to get where they are. Daenerys, for example, is a highly distinctive and outstanding woman, a warrior and princess attempting to reclaim her throne from the men who have stolen it. Cersei, meanwhile, for all her scheming and manipulation, is constantly reminded that she is only a woman, and thus isn’t anyone’s equal in society.
If this is about fantasy, and we can do anything we want, why is fighting misogyny so impossible? How is it that we can imagine a world where dragons walk the Earth, but not one where women don’t have to fear rape?
Photo by Søren Niedziella, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license